Sunday, December 29, 2013

foiled plans

The arrival hall in Labuan Bajo, Flores is one roomed with an open window which serves as baggage claim. With the hoards of passengers fighting their way to their bags, Esther and I hung back for a while waiting for the crowds to dissipate. On the walls hung giant posters advertising hotels, tour packages and the must-see's of Flores. I slowly circled the room, stopping 3/4ths the way around at a corner. There, on the wall, showed a picture of where I couldn't have a greater desire to see. The Ngadha and Wae Rebo hill tribes. The people looked intriguing, and their architecture, amazing. It was a bit of a jaunt to reach them, but something I was more than willing to do, and thankfully Esther was too.

But it was our two day Komodo adventure, with its buffering relaxation days that stretched our time thin. Time that was very quickly running out... for me. My 30 day Indonesian visa was five days away from expiring. And the journey alone from one side of the island to the other with tribal visits would swallow a week's worth of days.

We spent precious hours debating what could be done. But the other wrench in the plans was Esther's already renewed visa, which was set to expire in 12 days time. No matter what, she'd have to leave the country in order to renew it a second time around. Even if we flew to the other side of the island, and waited the presumed amount of days for my visa to be processed (which took 9 of for Esther's to be processed in Bali) she would have to leave a handful of days later. That is when we made a spur of the moment decision to make a visa run into East Timor and hailed a taxi to the airport. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

the eating habits of a dragon

The Komodo dragon has over 50 strains of bacteria in his mouth. Meaning, once the lazy creature bites his victim, he can back off and wait for it to suffer a slow, and imaginably painful, death. For larger creatures like the water buffalo, that's exactly what it does. The buffalo, otherwise, would maul the lizard to death - assuming both put on their boxing gloves. The buffalo lasts another three weeks after the bacteria from the wound seeps into its blood. The Komodo will keep an eye on it throughout the suffering until dinner is good and done for.

The other food option is the deer. Unlike the water buffalo, deer are small enough to be killed and eaten in one go. That is, if the deer meanders close enough to the dragon. Anything over 5 meters isn't worth running for, the Komodos reason. I'd have to agree.

But the Komodo isn't a partial creature. He'll eat humans too, if he's so inclined. All it takes is an unsuspecting victim to get to close, or the tempting smell of fresh blood from a menstruating woman. Which, our guide donning a long forked stick which was supposed to protect us in the off chance of an attack, said happened a few weeks earlier.

Either the woman was ill informed or wanted to live on the edge, but she entered the island tempting fate and luck was not entirely on her side... or, at least not the side of her guide. Her guide, in efforts to save her, plunged the long forked stick in the direction of the dragon. Unfazed, however, the Komodo plunged his mouth in the direction of the guide. The dragon succeeded, the stick did not. Once he got a bite in, the dragon was beaten into submission, and the guide's infected leg (along with the rest of his body) was life-flighted to Bali where the only vaccination lies. It took a solid week of recouperation, but the guide was OK in the end.

So they might look like unassuming and incredibly lazy creatures (which they are... lazy that is), but I kept an extra 5 meter's distance more than necessary between me and the Komodo, just to be safe.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

relative safety

Off the coast of Labuhanbajo, Flores - an island south of Lombok - the diving is superb and giant lizards reign supreme. And justifiably, Esther and I wanted to partake in both. In light of my lack of a PADI certification, however, we settled on a snorkeling tour on the way to Komodo Island instead.

We entered the boat that would house 8 of us (and 3 crew) for two days and were told there were enough life jackets to go around. There were six.

"But there are eight of us," Esther told the captain. "We need two more at least."

"We have enough," the captain retorted. "And we won't need them anyway."

"It's better to be safe. Can you please get two more?" she urged.

In 2008 there was a story, still spoken widely around the island, in which a group of divers fortunately wearing float vests were swept away in strong undercurrents for 10 hours in shark infested waters. They finally reached land around nightfall on Rinca Island, Komodo's neighbor. Instead of sighing in relief, they continued to fear for their life, fighting off 10 foot long lizards (who's bite alone can cause a slow and painful death, having injected its victim with dozens of differing bacteria) with their weightbelts.

He was a grumpy man, that captain. His eyes narrowed in on her. "You don't have to be here. You can go," he threatened.

Esther held his gaze.  Unlike him, she didn't back down.  Two more vests were brought in a few minutes later.

And then we were on our way, to see how dangerous the dragons actually were.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

conquering mountains

I'm no mountaineer. Rock climbing isn't my thing. Heights are abhorring. Funny that, being the daughter of my mother and all. In her twenty's she jumped out of planes and free climbed up cliffs. At five years old she brought me bouldering. In retrospect the boulders couldn't have been more than 15 feet high, but in my little eyes, they couldn't have been bigger. Every inch higher she climbed brought more screams from me requesting her decent.

So logically (or not so much), when I met Esther at a hostel in Semenyak who mentioned her desire to hike Mount Rinjani - an active volcano on the island of Lombok - I expressed my interest to do the same. I don't know where the interest came from... at least no picks or ropes were involved.

A while later we met back up for our 3 day / 2 night adventure. One I've only finally come to look back upon with a willingness to do again sometime if the offer ever arises. It's just a simple mountain, we thought. We couldn't have been more wrong. Even from a distance the view was deceiving. The 3,726 meter (12,224 foot) mountain had a lot more up its sleeve than we were prepared for.

While looking for a tour guide, we met a young Danish girl named Eva. Unlike the both of us, Eva was prepared. At least in the shoe department. As Esther and I are both traveling the world as light as possible (her more-so than I) proper hiking shoes are things we thought more of as dead weight. So we borrowed some. And if there's was no greater lesson in all of my travels than this, it is: never break in shoes while climbing vertically up and down a mountain for 10-12 hours a day. To say I destroyed my feet would be an understatement. I still don't know if they've forgiven me yet.

The first few hours of day one brought story-rounds. The way the story magically connected as one person ended a thought and the next person picked it up had our guide questioning how we all knew the story he never heard before. For us it brought two hours worth of entertainment as we slowly made our accent.

Lunchtime came when the sun was its hottest. Our two flip-flop clad porters, whom we openly admired for their brute strength in each carrying 25 kilos worth of items (hanging off a bamboo pole) on their shoulders, automatically switched into chef mode. A make-shift tent was constructed for us to relax under while they and our guide cooked up our first meal of the trek. It put our future pain in perspective knowing they climb once, if not twice, a week on a regular basis.

The following afternoon hours were harder. Our enthusiasm started waning. And the walking sticks our guide fashioned out of branches became our greatest joy. We grew so attached to our perspective sticks, that by the end of our journey it took prying it out of our cold, stiff hands to part them from us.

Young, sprite, 19 year old Eva had a bounce in her step the entire way up. She was consistently 12 steps ahead of us the entire trek. What a difference a decade (and a few years) makes. That and a comfortable pair of shoes. Esther, in turn, couldn't have been a better companion, shooting out words of encouragement when pain from bursting blisters on the back of my ankles consumed my every thought.

Reaching the crater rim our first evening was one of the most joyous moments for the three of us. Sweat stained and tired, we swapped into dry and warm clothes as the night's chill set upon us. Then, after dinner, we retired early to our tent. The three of us cuddling close to stay warm.

A 2am wakeup call came the following morning. With advice to bundle up, we layered on all the clothes we brought with us. The seven hour trek up and down the summit would be a cold one. With the knowledge of the cold I decided it wasn't necessary to weigh down my load by topping up my 1 liter bottle with water. Any way to lighten the load up the steep ascent was a good one.  Never did I realize I'd be stripping off clothes, or begging for water so soon.

One step up and two steps back. Full, shin deep, gravel paths 3/4ths the way up. Not enough water. All contributors to my body succumbing to altitude sickness. At 3,450 meters up, nausea and dizziness overtook me. As much as I wanted to say I conquered Rinjani, my body was readily willing to accept defeat.

I pushed myself further, until I had no strength left in me. Huddling behind some rocks as the chill of the wind pierced straight to the bones, Esther and I watched the sun rise above the mountain. Eva was somewhere near the top with our guide.

I couldn't continue on and joined another girl back down to the crater rim. Esther, in her desire to reach the top, turned the other direction. Two hours later, after feeling well rested and 'equilibrialized' we were reunited at the tent - Eva and Esther showing me photos from the top.

But the journey didn't end there. After a quick breakfast we set off on another 4 hour hike into the caldera. A sheer drop down. With legs as tired as ours already were, the steep rocky steps we climbed down were harder than they otherwise would have been.

Our treats that night were deliciously warm hot springs and a beautiful lake-side campsite. That and the temperatures were a bit warmer.

Our third and final day was the longest. A 3-4 hour hike back up to the volcano's rim and then further 9 hour journey back down the opposite side. For hours we sang one tune after another to keep our spirits high. We watched as group after group passed us in the opposite direction, sweat dripping off their brows as they'd stare at us in disbelief of our energy.

But it was the final hour that got me. The ground was flat, but my bloodied socks now stuck to my wounds and every step I took hurt worse than the last. I fell without provocation. The only thing keeping me upright most of the time being my stick. A hot shower, warm bed and a nearby wall to elevate my feet were the only things I was dreaming of. And gratefully, that came.

Not one of us could walk properly the following day. Lifting our legs in any fashion was laughable. Locals would glance our direction. Our cheeks would redden and they'd nod in a knowing fashion.

"Rinjani," they'd verbally conclude. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

day trippin'

Ubud is the prime location to start any excursion.

One of the most popular being a bicycling tour around the island. Not to feel left out, I joined in with the EcoCycling tour.

A van picks you up and deposits you at the top of the Batupuk volcano for breakfast with a view. The last big eruption occurred in the 1960's. The last small one was in the year 2000. "The next eruption is scheduled for 12 o'clock," one person chimed in.

Two years ago, the lake in the caldera got so hot due to volcanic activity that all the fish were boiled to death. Our guide went on to quip, "it was good for the locals near the lake though, because their food was cooked for them!"

Not too far away from the volcano is a local tribe that lay their dead at the base of a tree, covered with banana leaves while they wait for the body to become only bones. It takes about five years, and then they use the bones to make furniture. "Weirdest reincarnation ever," someone piped in. "You never know what you'll return as. A chair, a table...".

Hopping on bikes after breakfast, you ride alongside rice patties as far as the eye can see. Bali used to harvest enough rice to export. Tourism has destroyed that. There are now hotels in rice fields, causing production to lower. Today there is just enough rice for the island. Thankfully, as of two years ago, the government has stopped all construction allowances on the rice fields. The only individuals able to continue making the fields their home are ducks. It's a genius ecosystem. Ducks eat the fallen grains of rice, or ones left over after harvest. They, in turn, fertilize the soil. Then, once plump, are considered ready to eat. Everyone's left happy.

Another prime excursion is a culinary course with Paon Bali. First taking you to the farmers market to sample fresh produce, you're brought to a beautiful family compound and offered the most refreshing lime juice upon arrival.  For the following few hours you're set about preparing and cooking various meals, catered to food allergies and preferences. As the reward, you eat the most incredible Indonesian food you'll have throughout your entire journey in the country.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Eat, Pray, Love

The opening to the movie rendition of the book I couldn't read more than 20 pages of before quitting  (in distain of the author's bathroom 'self-loathing for a better life, reasoning it would be so much better without the husband who's love for her is not mutual' scene) Julia Roberts is riding a bike along rice patties.

As she pulls up to the outskirts of Ubud, the audience is introduced to life in rural Bali: Hindi housing compounds with the ornate detailing. She walks inside one compound showing multiple houses and a temple.  I watched that scene as I sat on a bed at a guesthouse located within one such compound. It was surreal. And they couldn't have portrayed it more vividly.

Each complex houses multi-generation families. A plaque at the entrance of the compound indicates the number of males and females in each. The eastern most building in the compound is the speak-easy room, a non-walled structure where the family gathers each night to resolve daily problems. That way, they can sleep well and wake up with a stronger relationship than the day before.

The eldest couple (or individual if their spouse has died) resides in the nicest of all houses in the compound. It is also elevated the highest, and as such is the most prominent. That house is passed on to the next in line as the older generations pass on.

As only one wife is allowed since 1972 (otherwise the husband will lose his job), in the rare event that the couple is unable to have children, allotting them an entire compound of their own, they adopt a nephew to take care of them in their aging years. That nephew goes on to inherit the house compound.

Monday, November 25, 2013

idyllic relaxation location

Bali is to Australia what Mexico is to America. Meaning, aside from the locals, there are more Aussies per square mile than any other foreign tourist.

The Hindu island is filled with shrines, temples in family compounds and on the water, cashiers who bow to you in the grocery stores, artistic dance moves and yoga galore. It also boasts some of the best surf spots in the world, especially for beginners, and a plethora of rice patties. And the farther inland you go, the more diverse the tourists become... not that Aussies aren't fun to hang out with.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

from one island country to another

Just like in birthday's past, this one was going to be a destination holiday. But unlike others, with an entire years worth of traveling from country to country in the works, I had to pick the one that would stand out amongst the others.

In all honesty, choosing wasn't difficult at all. Bali had been a target on my list for quite a while. And choosing exactly how I'd spend my day was just as easy.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

ilocos sur

"Go to Vigan," was the urging I was given by every Filipino I spoke to. Not that they had ever been there of course, although they all had a desire to after learning about it in school.

Vigan is the capital city of Ilocos Sur, a region 10 hours north of Manila. In the late 1500's a group of Spanish explorers found it a suitable place to settle, so they did. Today the old Spanish architecture is the primary reason local and foreign tourists take the ever-long bus ride up to visit.

Although there may not be tons to see, the ability to stay in old Spanish mansions for $9 a night is hard to beat. The rice tortilla empanadas are quite good too, assuming you eat one with sanitary sanctions that doesn't leave you with a mild case of food poisoning.

Grandpa's Inn, Spanish mansion hotel

rice flour empanada

Friday, November 8, 2013

a journal entry

4 August 2013

Today in Puerto Princesa was amazing. First I was put in contact with people who took time out of their day to pick me up from the airport and drive me around the city on their tricycle (a motorcycle with a side car), refusing any compensation for their help.

After arriving at the hostel, I ventured off towards the beach to get a better view of the ocean and mountains. I walked towards an area that resembles the favelas of Brazil. If I wasn't me, I wouldn't have gone down the road alone - or maybe at all. I did have a moment's hesitation though. But in that moment a man on a bike appeared asking if I needed directions. He said the waterfront was just a bit further down the road. So I continued.

I passed a group of teenaged boys playing basketball on a dirt courtyard, then crossed two wood planked bridges leading through shack housing where I finally reached the waterfront.

The shoreline was stunning. A few adults sat on a cement partition wall gazing at the view.  Although their housing may not be what one would ever dream of, the view from their front porch definitely is. Two men glanced my direction and nodded at me between cigarette puffs and turned their attention back to the view.

Then the children appeared. A large handful of them. They asked my name. They asked my age. They said "good morning", "good afternoon", and I taught them "good evening". We chatted for a while, and then I left - receiving a chorus of goodbyes with them even calling me by name while doing so.

By far one of the greatest moments in this country yet.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

little island paradise

At the northern most tip of Palawan, the western most Philippine island, is the tiny little village of El Nido. Set amongst limestone cliffs and beautiful inlets, it could be considered a sleepy town if it weren't for the influx of tourists.

It's a location so unique to the rest of the country, the bumpy 5-6 hour bus ride to reach it is more than welcomed.  For once you arrive, along with absorbing the laid-back atmosphere, there are multiple island hopping tours offered. And it's the tours that are the main reason for visiting.

The tours are categorized from A-D, the most popular being A and C. Sadly, due to a lack of time with only 3 days in the village and rainy weather, I was only able to choose one.

So I chose the first tour on the list which has been made famous by the latest Bourne movie, the last 10 minutes of which were shot above a small lagoon included in the tour.

To reach the small lagoon, you take a local fisherman's boat on a 30 minute ride which docks on the water near the lagoon. Hopping out of the boat you swim the crystal clear waters through a little archway opening which enters into the limestone cliff encircled lagoon. To call it magical would be an understatement.